Many of the world’s handmade cigar factories were forced to shut down during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. Today, most have reopened their doors, and cigars are once again flowing into distribution channels. The factories aren’t the same as they were before, however, and many have instituted changes to keep their workers safe as the virus continues to be felt around the globe, having claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. To find out what’s going on around the cigar-producing world, we spoke to a host of cigarmakers, covering factories from Santiago to Estelí, from Havana to Miami.
After roughly two months of closure, Arturo Fuente—one of the world’s largest makers of handmade cigars—resumed production on May 11. “Everybody’s wearing masks, everybody is far from each other,” said Ciro Cascella, chief executive officer of Fuente. “When they come in, we take the temperature. When they go out, we take the temperature.”
Carlos Fuente Jr., who owns and runs Fuente, has been expanding all of his operations for the past few years. That expansion means the company has plenty of presently unused space, allowing the cigar company to spread out its workforce and put empty rows between workers who would typically sit close together.
Tabacalera de Garcia
Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., one of the world’s largest cigar factories, was shut down from March 20 to April 6. “We started on a small scale when we reopened,” said Rafael Nodal, head of product capability for Tabacalera USA. He said the company has been ramping up production gradually since that time, but it’s still not operating at full capacity. “We have a phased plan to get back to our original capacity following the local protocol and requirements,” said Nodal.
The factory, which is located in La Romana, near the southeastern end of the Dominican Republic, is operating with new measures aimed at keeping workers safe, including distancing, additional cleaning and personal protective equipment. “Therefore the general appearance and procedures in the factory have changed,” said Nodal, “and are now part of our current business as usual.”
EPC Cigar Co.
Tabacalera La Alianza, the Santiago facility where Encore, Inch and many other cigars are made, reopened on June 1 at “50 percent capacity,” said Lissette Perez-Carrillo. The company has instituted major changes, including distancing as people walk in, extensive sanitizing and temperature checks for all workers upon arrival. The company has also made all of its aisles one-way. “No one walks at each other,” she said. Face masks are mandatory when entering the building.
General, one of the cigar world’s largest producers, also makes cigars in Nicaragua and Honduras, but its largest factory is in Santiago, Dominican Republic. All are operating at capacity, as they did before the outbreak. “The wide range of health, hygiene and safety measures that were implemented across the factories in the course of February and March to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all employees remain in place,” said a General Cigar spokesperson. The Dominican Republic operation was closed for roughly two weeks (from late March to early April). “In Honduras, a government-mandated shutdown and curfew closed our factories for close to five weeks. And in Nicaragua, production has continued as normal throughout the past couple of months,” said the spokesperson.
Quesada Cigars is operational, but working at half the strength as before. “Following the government instructions, the factory is now working under 50 percent of capacity until the end of the month,” said Enrique Tavarez of Quesada, which has a cigar factory in Licey, Dominican Republic. The factory reopened on May 18.
At Habanos S.A., the Cuban government has prioritized tobacco and cigar production as essential activities, according to sources at Habanos S.A. The cigar factories are operating, and there has been no disruption in the supply lines.
In response to the pandemic, the factories have adopted sanitary precautions and added additional space. Cigarmakers’ desks are separated by nearly 5 feet, with more space added to accommodate the expanded distance between desks. Each worker is required to wear a mask and the factories have been supplied with hand sanitizers and soap for the workers.
Flor de Copán
Tabacalera USA owns the Flor de Copán factory in northern Honduras. The factory was shut on March 15 after the country was declared under quarantine by President Juan Orlando Hernández. It was able to reopen in limited form on April 20 with “a very strict bio-safety protocol and also a plan for the gradual incorporation of our personnel,” said Joel Alvarenga, operations manager of the factory.
Now, the operation is running at nearly full strength. “We were able to incorporate all our personnel with the exception of personnel who have health problems and are considered high risk,” said Alvarenga. “We are running our operation focused on taking care of our staff.”
CLE has increased space around workers and painted marks to remind employees about social distancing practices. All employees wear N-95 masks and wash their hands at least once an hour, plus there are daily temperature checks. The factory reopened on May 5.
All Alec Bradley cigars are made under contract, and most are made in Honduras at the Raices Cubanas Factory in Danlí. The country has allowed cigar factories to operate at 50 percent of their total capacity. Like most facilities, Raices is built with room for expansion, so the impact on total production has been somewhat limited. What is hampering brand owner Alan Rubin right now is Honduras’ 14-day-quarantine for visitors, making it hard for Rubin to pay a personal visit.
“In Nicaragua we were closed for two weeks at the beginning of April…In the factories we are at full capacity but having the health of our people is our main priority,” said Nestor Andrés Plasencia. The company, one of the largest cigar tobacco growers in the world, also makes cigars in Honduras. There, the closing was longer.
“Our operations in Honduras were closed for five weeks and since April 20, they have also been operating at maximum capacity,” said Plasencia.
Oliva Cigar Co.
Oliva has remained open throughout this process, and is now operating with new policies. “We are operating at 100 percent capacity and have put in strict social distancing guidelines, instituted mask wearing policy, extreme sanitation procedures and have limited congregating,” said Cory Bappert, CEO of Oliva Cigar Co. “Also, we take everyone’s temperature as they come into the factory. We haven’t closed our factory outside of normal holidays.”
“We shut down, like most of the factories, the week before Semana Santa (April 5) and reopened the week after [Easter],” said Terence Reily. “We have increased space between the employees and require frequent, thorough hand washing as well as shoe disinfectant.” The company’s small Miami operation is also open.
One of the cigar world’s busiest cigarmakers also has some of its biggest accolades: AJ Fernandez is where the Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro, Cigar of the Year, is made. “The factory closed for two weeks,” says Frankie Santos. But it’s back on line today. “It’s at capacity, and adhering to all safety measures.”
“Thankfully, neither our El Reloj factory in Tampa nor our PENSA factory in Estelí closed due to the Coronavirus,” said Drew Newman, general counsel of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. The company’s facility in Ybor City, Florida, is where cigars are crafted on old machines, and are also rolled in very small quantities by hand.
“Both of our factories continue to roll cigars as they always have been,” said Newman. “Because El Reloj has 100,000-square-feet of space, it is pretty easy to socially distance. Everyone at both factories is wearing masks and frequently washing their hands, and both factories are closed to visitors. We’ve stressed to all of our employees that their health and well-being is most important and to please stay home if they are feeling sick.”
“Similarly, our joint Arturo Fuente/J.C. Newman sales team spent April and May calling on their accounts from home and participating in an extensive training program. They are now starting to visit cigar stores again while wearing masks and following CDC guidelines on social distancing," Newman added.
El Titan de Bronze
“Full steam ahead,” said Sandy Cobas, owner of El Titan de Bronze in Miami. The cigar factory/cigar store had to temporarily close, but it’s back in business. Visitors can come inside only with a mask on, but they offer curbside pickup. Everyone at the factory is wearing a mask and they had face shields made, so they are makingHerrera Esteli Miamis and others, as they did before.
Reporting by Chris Esposito, Gregory Mottola, Gordon Mott, Andrew Nagy and David Savona